The power of silence in presentations
Updated: Aug 2
"Well-timed silence hath more eloquence than speech."
~ Martin Farquhar Tupper
When I was studying Theater as an undergraduate, we learned early on the importance of “taking a beat.” It's when you say a line in a play and then . . . wait a few seconds . . . before saying your next line. It creates a sense of anticipation in the audience. "What’s next?," they say to themselves.
One of the most impactful things you can do as a speaker is to use silence to your benefit. It’s counterintuitive, but silence—a 2- to 5-second pause—can improve audience attention. In theater, we call this “a pregnant pause” (a silence that’s bursting with expectation) and you can see the impact it has on your audience.
That’s what this post is about—the power of pausing during your presentations. Silence, we’ll see, is golden when it comes to providing top-notch presentations. The post is drawn from what I teach in Noble Edge’s Art of Skilled Presentations. We’ll look at how pauses—small bits of golden silence—can ramp up your presentation skills. We’ll look at how to best use pauses in your presentations and then I’ll suggest when the best moments are in a typical presentation to insert a pause.
Ready? Let’s go.
The purpose of pauses
In many ways, the pauses you put into your presentation are as important as the words you use. Silence says a lot! It says, “This is important! Pay attention!”
A pause grabs your audience’s attention. In fact, pauses make the audience really uncomfortable. Silence creates a tension—and that’s a good thing! It keeps people eager for more.
Pauses build anticipation—Think about the Oscars. That moment between when the person says, “And the winner is . . .” and the actual opening of the envelope. “Who? Who?” The audience says to themselves, squirming in their seats. The anxiety is almost palpable.
Pauses demonstrate your confidence to the audience—The audience will admire your composure and confidence. You’re in command. Even if you’re nervous, by taking time to pause, you will appear calm and credible.
Pauses allow time to laugh at a joke—If you don’t give them enough time to laugh, you’ve wasted your joke!
Pauses allow you a chance to breathe—Studies prove that when we’re nervous, we tend to breathe shallow at the top of our lungs. Taking a pause allows you the chance to take a long, deep breath into your diaphragm. The additional oxygen feeds your brain and calms your nervous system.
Where to place pauses in a presentation
Pauses are so powerful that you shouldn’t use them carelessly. Be strategic where the put your pauses. Actually write them into your notes. Pause here five seconds.
There are five great places to insert a pause in your presentation:
Before you start your presentation—This is a great way to gather your energy before you launch into your presentation. When you get to the lectern, look at your audience and smile. Take a deep breath and as you do so, imagine that you are drawing the energy of the room in. Slowly exhale and begin speaking. It lends an air of importance to the words you’re about to say.
Before a main point—A pause is jarring to the audience. “Is something wrong?” they wonder to themselves. “What’s about to happen?” The pause lets people know that they should pay attention.
After a main point—This gives your audience a chance to absorb what you just said and consider whether it’s applicable to their work life. It tells people, “Consider carefully what I just said!”
When moving to a new topic—Inexperienced presenters are so eager to get the ordeal of public speaking over that they reach the end of one topic and immediately launch into the next. Instead . . . pause two to five seconds. Let your audience audibly know there’s been a transition.
After a question—Too many presenters start answering a question immediately after the audience member has finished asking the question. Even worse, some speakers will start answering while the audience member is still finishing the question.
When you pause before answering it dignifies the question and shows the audience you’re giving the question your best thought.
Additionally, if you as the presenter are asking the audience a question (hypothetical or not), give them an opportunity to process. Taking a pause will do just that.
For maximum impact, combine pauses with deliberate movement
How to get even more bang out of your strategically placed pauses? Combine them with deliberate motions. I’ve already talked about the importance of using your body in your presentation.
Movement is especially powerful when you combine it with a pause. For example, if you coming to a pause in your presentation, during the pause take a step or two away from the lectern. Let the message sink in.
Nothing is accidental about an effective presentation. Strategically decide when to lower your voice, when to move away from the lectern, and when to use specific gestures. Add to that list pauses. A strategically placed pause is a signal to your audience: This is important! It shows you have a command of your topic and you’ll be more successful in keeping your audience engaged.
Want to learn more about how to become a powerful presenter? Check out NobleEdge’s leadership workshop, The Art of Skilled Presentations. Over the course of this dynamic and interactive session, we look at these crucial areas: Mind, Body, and Engagement. Workshop participants try out these new skills and make a prepared presentation to the group. Finally, every workshop participant will get one-on-one coaching from me, where I use my training in theater and corporate training to show you how to engage with your audience with ease and confidence. Your presentations will never be the same!
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Marie Tjernlund is the Co-founder and President of NobleEdge Consulting. As an accomplished executive coach, certified Conflict Dynamics Profile® facilitator, and a professional performer, Marie brings her positive energy and skills to clients around the world. You can contact her at Marie@NobleEdgeConsulting.com.